Glynn Cardy, 18th September 2022
Our first reading today, gives a perspective on engaging with the stranger and foreigner. Some outsiders want to stop us, prevent us, or divert us from following where we believe godness (or at least our understanding of godness) is leading. They are blocking the road – deliberately and destructively.
Grasshopper is on a journey when he is confronted by a dogmatic mosquito. The mosquito’s world is bounded by the lake – a lake that he must control. The only way for Grasshopper to continue on his journey is, according to Mosquito, to fit into Mosquito’s boat. It is patently absurd. But the Mosquito’s vision is bounded by the lake. The Mosquito’s religion is ‘lake religion’ and the only way to be saved is by his boat.
This scenario is very common. There are many who write to me to say there is only one way to God and it is their way. To be ‘Christian’ or ‘inclusive’ they say is to stop what I’m doing, and follow their rules. This is, they say, the path of ‘unity’ – a very important value for mosquitoes. [It’s almost as important as obedience.] If I depart from their understanding of Christian religion and values then I am departing from the way of Christ.
So, here is the mosquito. Part of the wonderful mosaic of planetary life. He has a small boat, a small lake, a small God, and a large and insistent voice. How do we keep true to our ethos of inclusion and hospitality without succumbing to the mosquitoes’ agenda which is to stop us in our tracks?
While it’s tempting to try to swat him, squash him, or spray him, Arnold Lobel’s Grasshopper finds a way to honour the inner dignity of Mosquito while continuing to be true to his own calling to journey on. Grasshopper lifts the mosquito out of his paradigm, and then gently lowers him again. But Mosquito is blind to it. He thinks he’s won. His religion he believes has saved Grasshopper. Mosquito stays in his boat and his lake, trapped in his world view, as Grasshopper walks on down the road.
For some characters, like Mosquito, will not change – rather they have to be gently moved to the side, or lifted out of the way, in order that others can move on.
I like the grace that Grasshopper displays. Grace permeates this story. As does discernment. Discernment is important in ascertaining whether the demand in front of you is a mosquito to be gently put aside or a compass suggesting a correction to your course. A ministry of inclusive hospitality, vital as it is to our spiritual wellbeing, requires leadership (of minsters and elders) that is both graceful and discerning.
The word for church in Greek is ekklesia. Literally it means ‘called out’.
I used to drink coffee at place called Tiki Boy on Ponsonby Road. Before I even got in the door my name would be called out. ‘Hiya Father Glynn’. As you can tell from the honorific conferred Preston, one of the owners, had an Irish Catholic upbringing.
Preston told me that if he has served a person three coffees and doesn’t know a person’s name he is failing in his job. And by hollering out a greeting to each and nearly every customer he is not only welcoming that person but sharing their name. Sure beats name tags.
I liked Tiki Boy not just because I’m getting old and appreciate things like knowing a barista’s name and being known in return. I liked the atmosphere Preston and Jene (Brazilian in case you wondered) created – a kind of fun, joking, clowning atmosphere. A bit boysy admitted, but often they put a smile on my dial.
A ‘church’ like Tiki Boy that puts a smile on the dial, caters for the senses (the look, atmosphere, smell), and calls out your name – not as customer, client, or patient but Glynn – is place where I’d stay a while. And come again.
Indeed, back then it was worth getting in the car and driving there at lunchtime, rather than walking 200 metres down the road. Unfortunately, they’re no longer on Ponsonby Road. I think its another real estate office now.
Our bible verse today (Matthew 9:9) has Jesus calling out Matthew. It says Jesus was walking along and saw Matt in his tax office, and (either by looking at him or knowing his name) said: ‘Follow me’. And Matt got up and left his money and accounts and all that had given him value and meaning and wealth.
It was a radical conversion. And there’s not a peep about all that conservative, traditional Christianity stuff – like confessing your sins, repenting, penance, believing in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, and all that and all that. Rather it’s about Jesus’ walking, seeing, and calling out, and Matthew leaving and following.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not nice. And we can’t suppose Matt was any different. They weren’t generous, forgiving, or kind. They snarled when they talked and were built like front-row forwards. Or had a couple of lads standing behind them who fitted that description.
Tax collectors were extortionists. Don’t think Inland Revenue Department but crime gangs. If the Romans and local Jewish rulers wanted say 30% of your earnings, then they employed collectors. But they didn’t pay the collectors. So, collectors asked for say another 20% of your earnings for themselves. And if they didn’t get that total of 50% of your earnings, they beat it out of you.
Tax collectors were not popular. Funny that! You didn’t want to befriend or seen to be friends with a tax-collector.
Not only were they low-life, but they were also seen as ungodly. They weren’t decent church-going sort of folk who kept a standard of personal morality, or gave to community charities. They didn’t believe. And seemingly didn’t care.
And they also cuddled up to the Romans, the oppressive occupation forces. They did what the Romans wanted and profited from it. They were betrayers of their race, culture, land, and faith. You would not want your daughter to go out with one. And you would never invite one for dinner.
Which was the problem. Jesus, the latest popular rabbi in town, the one everyone was talking about and wanted to invite to dinner, accepted your invitation to dine and brought along Matthew and his collector mates. Oh-uh. Are you really sure you want Jesus in your house?
Imagine Matthew 9: 10, 11. “And as Jesus sat at dinner in the house [that’s your house], many tax-collectors and other undesirables were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees [fellow Presbyterians] saw this, they said to his disciples [also Presbyterians), “You guys are nuts!”
Then there is a silence in the text before Jesus pipes up. But note the disciples have no answer. I suspect they too thought this was nuts.
How do you really accommodate an undesirable guest like a tax collector? No one trusts him. No one wants him. But he comes as part of the Jesus package. What boundaries do you impose? Will he keep to them? What happens if he doesn’t? This is risky. There are no easy answers.
Matt, I’m guessing, also is thinking this is nuts. This is a party for nice religious people, and he isn’t one of them. He gets the vibe. The ‘we-are-nervous-around-you’ vibe. He’s tuned to pick up such vibes. He knows you don’t want him in your house. He can see through that welcoming beatific smile.
Matt knows how to make people scared. But he doesn’t know how to make people like him. He can do fear. He can’t do love. But he wants to do love. He wants to believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe he can do love. Jesus makes him believe that he’s really a diamond, despite his roughness.
The purpose of church is to embody that belief of Jesus. The purpose of church, the ‘called out’, is to help people believe they can do love. No matter how much fear they have, or how much others fear them, they can learn and be shown and be trusted to do love.
Ekklesia, ‘called out’, also has a modern meaning. When you call someone out on something you are inviting them to be true to themselves. That is be true to their true self. Be true to the diamond, not the rough.
This sense of ‘called out’ invites us to imagine that Matt’s extortionists ways, relationships as a tax-collector, and the profits gained, did not reflect his true self. He was living a lie – the lie that he was happy, the lie that he was successful and fulfilled. For so many people there is a disconnect between what they do and who they truly are, and for many it can lead to living a lie.
All it took was a look, and the lie crumbled. Or it was Jesus calling out his name when he had no idea that any self-respecting rabbi would ever bother to know his name.
Remember the church of Tiki Boy café. Putting a smile on your face, an atmosphere that evokes your senses, being called by your name… Now, from our reading, we have the church for the Matthews. A place where others believe that no matter how bad, or hurt, or needy you are, you can do love. And in this place, they will stand by you when you try and fail or when others doubt or criticise you. No matter how weak you are, together with us you can be strong.
There is another meaning too in the name ‘ekklesia’. Namely that you are called out for a purpose. It’s not just a call to welcome and help you belong, or a call that invites you be true to yourself. It’s also call to be something you might not even have dreamt of. For church/ekklesia are a community who are called to live a vision.
This is the sense of the English-based website Ekklesia, at one stage the biggest Christian website in the UK. Its vision is one of justice, peace, and sustainability for people and planet. It is committed to a style of practical and theoretical investigation which they describe as “thinking without tanks”.
So church is not just a place of belonging, acceptance, smiles, and kindness, or a place of provocative hospitality beyond the boundaries of what is normally acceptable or manageable. Church is a place where dreams are dreamt, visions are brought to earth, and actions are undertaken. To paraphrase the Magnificat, we are called out ultimately for the purpose of pulling the mighty and their self-serving reasoning down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, the ostracized, and the marginal.